Japan’s moves toward building biopharma appear to give U.S. companies a faster option for expansion into Asia than has been seen after a decade of engagement with China, Joseph Panetta, president and CEO of Biocom, the industry group for San Diego and southern California, told GEN.
As a result of the recent moves, plus member concerns about China’s regulatory efficiency and knowledge of Western-style business practices, Panetta said, “what we’ve been doing in the last year is focusing more on Japan, and we see a lot of potential opportunity in Japan.”
Another factor stoking that interest, he added, was growing interest in U.S. partnerships by Japanese biopharmas; he cited Ajinomoto’s $175 million acquisition of San Diego-based Althea Technologies last year. That activity predates Abe: Daiichi Sankyo bought another San Diego company, Plexxicon, in 2011, while Takeda snapped up Intellikine for $190 million upfront (plus up to $120 million in milestone payments) that year and Millennium for $8.45 billion in 2008.
But last year in the first public-private effort of its kind, the Abe government joined five Japanese pharmas—Astellas Pharma, Daiichi Sankyo, Eisai, Shionogi, and Takeda Pharmaceutical—and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to launch the Global Health Innovative Technology (GHIT) fund, designed to develop medicines, vaccines, and diagnostics for infectious diseases in developing countries. Japanese companies are also looking north of the border for deals: Also in 2013, Mitsubishi Tanabe Pharma acquired Canadian-based vaccine developer Medicago for C$357 million (about $322 million).
“You have a lot of mid-sized pharmas in Japan. Their pipelines are becoming depleted, and they’re just beginning to try to figure out how to take advantage of creative partnerships with biotech companies. So we’re going to spend a lot more time in Japan,” Panetta said, during in an interview during the recent JP Morgan 32nd Annual Healthcare Conference in San Francisco.
Panetta’s group last year joined several San Diego-area business groups in a trade mission to Japan that involved meeting his group’s Japanese counterpart, the Japan Bioindustry Association. Panetta said the trade mission laid groundwork for cross-promotional efforts launched this past fall at the bioindustry association’s meeting in Yokohama, and set to be launched February 26–27 at Biocom’s Global Life Science Partnering Conference.
One company increasing its presence in Japan is Biogen Idec. Within a year, the biotech giant plans to double its workforce from 70 to 140 staffers, as well as double its office space to accommodate the growth.
“We will be hiring a majority of the positions in our commercial, research and development, and medical affairs functions. There will also be additions in manufacturing and G&A roles,” spokeswoman Shannon Altimari told GEN.
Altimari said Biogen Idec has been committed to the Japanese market for more than a decade, building an organization focused on understanding patients’ specific needs. To Biogen Idec, Japan is attractive because its healthcare system provides low-cost, universal coverage for patients with diseases for which the company is developing treatments, such as MS and hemophilia.
“We are building stronger R&D and technical capabilities to enable us to engage with local experts at the earliest possible stage, ensuring our clinical development plans take into consideration specific requirements for Japanese patients,” Altimari said. “The Japanese Government’s focus on healthcare as a source of economic growth and its long-term commitment to rewarding innovation are strong reasons to be confident in our ongoing investments there.”
The company says Abe’s commitment to building biopharma, plus a commitment from regulators to expedite their handling of new product reviews, may reduce time to approval, to the benefit of patients and healthcare providers.